Wisconsin's War on Unions: Coming Soon to a Town Near You

by Abe Sauer

One doesn’t need to go to the Middle East or Northern Africa to find a people-versus-government showdown. At this very moment in Wisconsin, one of the most important labor battles in decades is already going down at the state capital in Madison.

On one side is Tea Party Republican Governor Scott Walker and a GOP legislature hell-bent on making Wisconsin “open for business.” On the other side are the state’s labor unions, which Walker’s latest budget aims to fully field dress, gut and strap down to the hood of his car, tongue hanging out and all. Across the state, Wisconsinites are organizing for protests and vigils, including, of course, the Purple People Eaters. Walker has — no shit — said that he will call in the National Guard if necessary. Here’s a fast look at line items from Walker’s just-released budget that, if successful, may soon find themselves in a legislature near you.

Walker’s special session bill begins: “Under current law, municipal employees have the right to collectively bargain over wages, hours, and conditions of employment under the Municipal Employment Relations Act (MERA), and state employees have the right to collectively bargain over wages, hours, and conditions of employment under the State Employment Labor Relations Act (SELRA). This bill changes MERA and SELRA with respect to all employees…”

It continues, “This bill limits the right to collectively bargain for all employees who are not public safety employees…”

The highlights:

COLLECTIVE BARGAINING. Make various changes to limit collective bargaining for most public employees to wages. Total wage increases could not exceed a cap based on the CPI unless approved by referendum. Contracts would be limited to one year and wages would be frozen until a new contract is settled. Collective bargaining units are required to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union. Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues. Changes effective upon expiration of existing contracts. Law enforcement, fire employees and state troopers and inspectors would be exempt from the changes.

STATE EMPLOYEE ABSENCES AND OTHER WORK ACTIONS. Authorizes appointing agencies to terminate any employees that are absent for three days without approval of the employer or any employees participating in an organized action to stop or slow work if the governor has declared a state of emergency.

QUALITY HEALTH CARE AUTHORITY. Repeals the authority of home health care workers under the Medicaid program to collectively bargain.

CHILD CARE LABOR RELATIONS. Repeals the authority of family child care workers to collectively bargain with the state.

UW HOSPITALS AND CLINICS BOARD AND AUTHORITY. Repeals collective bargaining for UWHC employees. State positions currently employed by the UWHC are eliminated and incumbents are transferred to the UWHC Authority.

UW FACULTY AND ACADEMIC STAFF. Repeals authority of UW faculty and academic staff to collectively bargain.

Authorizes DOA to sell state heating plants, with the net proceeds deposited in the budget stabilization fund.

PENSION CONTRIBUTIONS. Require that employees of WRS employers and the City and County of Milwaukee contribute 50% of the annual pension payment. The payment amount for WRS employees is estimated to be 5.8% of salary in 2011.

HEALTH INSURANCE CONTRIBUTIONS. Requires state employees to pay at least 12.6% of the average cost of annual premiums.

That adds up to a complete gutting of unions’ ability to collectively bargain (including teachers!) and mandates increased payments from those employees to pension and health insurance costs (essentially amounting to a pay cut). And that little item about the power to terminate employees? Here’s a scenario where that gets useful fast. Walker passes the bill. Public employees revolt against its draconian measures. With state services crippled, Walker declares state of emergency. The political pals that now head the state agencies (“appointing agencies”) cite the bill and fire the hell out of everyone. Enter the National Guard (as noted, already on alert).

Oh, it also puts state-owned assets up for fire sale. (For how this goes, see the chapter “The Outsourced Highway” in Matt Taibbi’s latest book, Griftopia.)

Nobody would expect Walker to have any sense of history but his mention of the National Guard in reference to a labor dispute is chilling to those who recall the Bay View riot. In May 1886, nearly 15,000 workers gathered in Milwaukee to demand an eight hour workday. Thousands marched the streets with banners in Polish, German and English. Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah Rusk called the National Guard to respond; seven were killed (five by other estimates) and several more wounded.

Of course it’s appropriate that this would happen in Wisconsin, a state that embraced the organized labor movement more heartily than any other. From the early bricklayers and carpenters unions of the 1840s to the formation of the Eight-Hour League to Robert La Follette’s progressive trail blazing, Wisconsin has been one of organized labor’s greatest friends. In 1911, it was the first state to enact worker compensation protections. In 1932, it was the first to pass unemployment compensation. And in 1959, it was one of the first states to pass a law supporting collective bargaining for public employees. Ironic that conservatives are credited with adding the teachers union to this collective bargaining bill in the hopes that it would kill it.

And odd as well that so many conservatives constantly speak of going back to a better America while at the same time undoing the accomplishments of that very better American time.

It was just back in 2009 the governor signed signed AB 172, also known as the “Labor History in the Schools bill,” requiring public schools to make labor and collective bargaining history part of the social studies curriculum.

The greatest obscenity of all is that the Republican Party was also created in Wisconsin. In early 1854, in the “Little White Schoolhouse” in Ripon, Alvan Bovay and 16 men gathered. They opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would allow states to choose if they wanted legalized slavery. Specifically, the men opposed slavery and disenfranchisement of the citizenry — which makes ironic Walker and the Wisconsin GOP’s recent plan for a voter ID law (despite just twenty cases of voter fraud in the state in the last decade).

That newly formed Republican party gained steam and elected its first winning candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Five years after the Ripon meeting, he wrote: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” You’ve come a long way, baby.

Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer [at] gmail.com.